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Sound of silence
A snowmobiler drives past a Days Inn in West Yellowstone on Wednesday. Snowmobiles still cruise the town, but in fewer numbers than in past seasons.
Photo by BECKY BOHRER/Associated Press

Snowmobile town trying to cope with changes to park's winter plan

WEST YELLOWSTONE - Getting a table at Jackie LaFever's sports bar and restaurant is easy this winter. So is finding a room at Vernetta Steele's motel - or most that are still open in town.

This town just outside Yellowstone National Park is much quieter than normal, and for many residents, the mood is bleaker.

While snowmobiles still cruise the powdery streets of the self-proclaimed "snowmobile capital of the world," the numbers are far below those in previous years. Residents blame it on a federal judge's ruling that reversed Yellowstone's snowmobile rules just hours before the start of the season in December and on the confusion and uncertainty that have surrounded the issue for months.

"Just tell them: Yellowstone is open and West Yellowstone is open," LaFever says from behind the bar at Bullwinkle's Saloon & Restaurant.

Perhaps none of the towns around the park are feeling the economic pinch as much as West Yellowstone, which historically has been the most popular gate for entering Yellowstone in winter.

Town officials are trying to figure out what happens to West Yellowstone and its businesses if U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan's ruling withstands an appeal.

"We have many questions we need answers to before we can start out on a plan," says Marysue Costello, executive director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

The not knowing is the worst part, says Bill Howell, whose business includes snowmobile rentals, a hotel and restaurant. "I haven't really thought about next year," he says. "How can you?"

Howell was among those who invested in cleaner-burning, quieter snowmobiles to meet new park standards under a Bush administration plan that was set to take effect this winter. That plan set limits on the type and number of snowmobiles that could enter the park. Sullivan, however, ordered the Park Service to reinstate a Clinton administration plan that phases-out the machines in favor of mass-transit snowcoaches.

Now Howell is stuck with too many machines.

All snowmobiles entering Yellowstone this winter need to be part of a guided trip. Commercial guides like Howell get a set number of machines they can bring in each day. Howell, whose total fleet numbers 137 machines, says his limit in the park is 35 a day, but there haven't been many takers so far.

"I haven't been able to fill those all days because people aren't coming," says Howell, who also rents machines to people who want to ride snowmobiles outside Yellowstone. "You can't survive with what they're proposing."

Kent Swanson agrees. He says he may have to file for bankruptcy if he can't generate more revenue and attract more riders.

On average, Swanson says only about half his 46-snowmobile fleet is rented each day. Oddly enough, Swanson says he got back in the snowmobile rental business after a two-year absence specifically because of the Bush administration plan.

Gene Hansgen's family made plans to visit West Yellowstone before Sullivan's December decision. He says he came anyway, because other family members had already booked flights.

"I came in with a bad attitude," the 68-year-old enthusiast from Orem, Utah says. "But we had a good time" seeing the park as part of a guided tour.

Conservationists say the season is a rare treat - a chance for visitors to see Yellowstone without the buzz of so many snowmobiles.

"I think once things settle down, it will be good for the economy," says Betsy Robinson, a guide based in Bozeman who takes trips into the park. "I think people are resistant to change but I think this will be more in keeping with what the park was created for."

Scott Carsley, a snowcoach operator, says his business has been good this year and believes it will improve under the current rules. "But we're a small segment of the winter economy here," he says.

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In town, many business owners paint a different picture.

Some restaurants like The Gusher have scaled back hours. A few motels are closed. And the Food Roundup, a local grocery, recently laid off three part-time workers and a full-time worker.

Linda Heyes, coordinator of job and social services, says job openings have been down "dramatically."

Vernetta Steele is drafting a new marketing plan in between minding the front desk and doing other tasks at her Big Western Pine Motel. Steele, who also has a restaurant, has also had to lay off workers.

She is thinking about remodeling the motel and making a few other changes, too, as she looks to cater to other groups of visitors. Her backup plan: to sell.

"This is beyond belief," says Steele, whose reservation book is filled with nearly empty pages. "I can't grasp it myself but I believe it's true because I'm running out of money."

Mayor Jerry Johnson, himself a snowmobile rental operator, bristles at the suggestion his town hasn't diversified much beyond snowmobiling - particularly snowmobiling in the park.

"Those who say we need to diversify need to open their eyes," he says. Attractions he and others mention include skiing, snowshoeing, snowcoach rides and snowmobile trails outside the park.

"The economic impact is not overblown," he says from his shop, where black snowsuits hang unused against a wall.

"It will be interesting," he says, "to look at West Yellowstone in five years."

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